Even if the worse case scenario from his perspective transpires at Ibrox this afternoon, Steven Gerrard will have presided over progress in his first six months as Rangers manager. Defeat in the Old Firm showdown would leave his team six points behind Premiership leaders Celtic going into the winter break. When the sides drew 0-0 in the corresponding fixture at Parkhead one year ago, Rangers trailed the champions by 11 points.
But simply closing the gap between the clubs, which has become something of a chasm since Brendan Rodgers took charge at Celtic, is not sufficient for Gerrard, pictured. While he has consistently and wisely avoided making any bullish claims Rangers can win the title in his debut season as a manager, Gerrard is also uncomfortable with the notion that finishing runners-up in May would represent success.
As he bids to oversee a first league victory over Celtic for his club since March 2012, the former Liverpool and England captain views today’s assignment firmly in the context of a potential title challenge which he admits would be seriously diminished by a defeat.
“I haven’t set off at the beginning of the season with any aims to try to be the second best team in the country,” said Gerrard.
“It is a case of aiming for the stars and see where we end up. This club should always look to be at the top. That was the message to me when I came in and that hasn’t changed. I knew the size of the task to do it in the first season but that didn’t mean I wasn’t going to try to do it. I don’t know what the board will see as satisfying this season but I want to try to win it. I’m here to win the league and everything else we enter. That’s my mentality and it will never change.
“We want a win on Saturday and we need a win. A defeat would be damaging for us. A draw would leave us where we are, while a win flips the mood and increases the optimism and belief moving forward.
“It would be a very nice feeling but we have to bring our ‘A’ game. We have been at our best when we are on the front foot, when we play with the shackles off and believe in ourselves. If we bring that, then we have a good chance.
“Celtic are the favourites coming into the game. If they go six points ahead with a game in hand, it would be damaging for us. There is no getting away from that.”
Gerrard’s first taste of Old Firm battle ended in a 1-0 defeat at Celtic Park back in September, a game the champions largely dominated from the start. He is demanding a more assertive approach from his players today.
“The key for me and my message to the players is not to freeze and have too much respect for Celtic like they did the last time,” added Gerrard. “Don’t sit back and wait for the game. Go and grab it. Go and seize the moment and the opportunity to express yourselves. I want the players to be excited about this fixture, not fearful.
“We have played teams on Celtic’s level, in terms of quality and technical ability, at Ibrox in Europe this year. We coped very well in those games and proved we were a match for them. Having our fans behind us should certainly give us an advantage and give the players confidence and belief. They can push us on. But there is no doubt we have to max out in terms of our performance. We need everyone to step up and perform close to their best for us to get a result.
“We are more used to each other now, we have certainly grown as a group since we last played Celtic. The first Old Firm game came around pretty quickly and was on the back of a tough away European fixture.
“I’m asking my players for one last push before the winter break. I’m sure Brendan will deliver a similar message to Celtic as their schedule in the first half of the season has been just as brutal.
“But it has been a great experience for myself and the players. It has been a great journey with lots of twists and turns, and highs and lows in there. This is an opportunity for us to finish this part of it on a high. So I have told the players to give it one last push, leave everything out there and see where it takes us.”
Gerrard will make late decisions on the fitness of Gareth McAuley, Scott Arfield and Ryan Kent but is confident defender Connor Goldson, who limped out of Wednesday’s 1-1 draw against Hibs, will play.
“He’ll need help in terms of pain relief but he’s done it before and he will pull through for us,” said Gerrard. “I have to tip my hat to both Connor and James Tavernier as they are the two players who have gone to the well most this season, gone above and beyond for the badge and the club.
“Whenever I’ve spoken to them about giving them a rest, they’ve just looked away. They are desperate to play every game and that is brilliant for me as a manager. That’s the way I was as a player and those two have the same mentality.”